Sunday, January 21, 2007

The Reading Endeavour

I have argued before in this blog for a greater role for writers in the debate about how we should read fiction, and here is Zadie Smith taking that role in yesterday's Guardian, and quoting as her mentors those other great writer-critics, Nabokov, Iris Murdoch and Virginia Woolf.

This second half of Zadie's fiction 'tips' takes a little more work from the reader than last week's offering, though that's perhaps fitting in view of what she has to say about the role of the reader, and she is wrestling - with the writerly honesty which last week she advocated - with concepts which are subtle and nowadays unfamiliar.

Readers, she says, have a duty as great as that which she has outlined for writers, and of a similar nature, a duty which she feels they have generally abdicated. She identifies two kinds of contemporary 'failing' reader or critic: firstly the 'system' reader/critic:
In writing schools, in reading groups, in universities, various general reading systems are offered - the post-colonial, the gendered, the postmodern, the state-of-the-nation and so on. They are like the instructions that come with furniture at IKEA. All one need do is seek out the flatpack novels that most closely resemble the blueprints already to hand ... We want [novels] to be wholly sufficient systems of ideas ... to speak for a community or answer some vital question of the day
and secondly, the 'corrective' reader/critic, who more properly relates to a novel on an individual, personal level, bringing to it his own tastes and prejudices, but less properly fails to admit to himself that this is what he is doing and imagines that he is applying universal aesthetic criteria.

Both types of reader are in consequence closed to novels which fail to fulfil their respective preconditions. Ideally, she says,
Both the writer and the reader must undergo an ethical expansion - allow me to call it an expansion of the heart - in order to comprehend the human otherness that fiction confronts them with.
Like Woolf, she concedes that a perfect meeting of minds between writer and readers is of course never possible; we must always fail in the endeavour, and indeed it is this failure which makes each novel, and each reading, individual and fascinating. But it is the willingness to make the endeavour which allows us to 'fail better.'
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